Deliberate Acts of Kindness
I am prone to inspiration the way some people are prone to colds. Even when I do remember to order decaf, the little everyday sparks tend to convince me that life is good. So, by nature, I am drawn to the notion of random acts of kindness. They’re inspiring, they’re gratifying, they’re the spiritual equivalent of Kaizen: continuous small acts that collectively make a difference.
And yet, there are ills that do not recede without deliberate and sustained effort; random acts might mow them down a bit, but they won’t kill them. Random kindness did not pass the 13th Amendment, or the Clean Water Act. In today’s world, where so many have dismissed politics as a partisan shooting match, do we have the collective resolve to slog through the hard stuff?
I decided to attend a Tikkun Olam (Social Justice) Committee meeting at the synagogue last year, to explore whether I did. I liked these folks right away: They were warm, smart, thoughtful people, and I felt inspired (there I go again) by the discovery of this gem within my congregation. As part of the multi-faith organization People Acting in Community Together (PACT), the Tikkun Olam Committee focuses primarily on social justice through grassroots community action.
At the time I joined, the group had decided to focus on healthy aging – in particular, issues of senior transportation. Sure, I said, thinking of Paula’s aging mother, that’s important. I scheduled coffee with the CEO of SilverRide to learn about senior transit from someone who had made a business of it. I typed up my notes, sent them out, and looked forward to a lively discussion about senior isolation. I was excited.
The excitement didn’t last. Every month, I went to the Tikkun Olam Committee meeting with a handful of fellow congregants, trying not to let my mind wander. The pace of the conversation was painfully slow. Compared to the agility that a startup requires to avoid extinction, PACT’s process made me want to chew my arm off. Who was synthesizing the myriad research meetings into a compelling story? Where was the PowerPoint presentation? What is our objective here, folks? And who’s in charge? Every meeting had an assigned chairperson, but between those meetings, there was no continuity in leadership.
Still, I told myself, I don’t know anything about community organizing; maybe this is what it takes to get stuff done when it comes to government. I tried to remain patient as the conversations meandered back and forth.
Last month, at the urging of our assigned PACT organizer, I attended a meeting of the Healthy Aging Local Organizing Committee, which included members of two other synagogues and several area churches as well. It was a three-hour meeting to get prepare for the upcoming action, and I felt hopeful about emerging with a clear vision, a to-do list, and renewed energy.
After 2 hours and 40 minutes, I walked out, at the end of my rope. The meeting was dominated by a group of longtime members, mostly seniors themselves, who had no need for PowerPoints. As we skittered through the agenda, newcomers like me felt marginalized as we moved to vote on priorities we weren’t informed enough to set – and, predictably, the outcome of the meeting was another set of meetings. I sat there in frustration, realizing that I was the only person in that room with young children competing for those precious hours.
After that, I concluded I was going to have to find another way to change the world. I started declining Tikkun Olam Committee meetings and relaxed into the familiar stress of startup life, replete with the comforts of a chain of command and a sense of urgency. I rationalized my exit by telling myself that my presence wasn’t important.
But Margaret Mead’s famous words still ran through my head: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The process didn’t feel right to me, but the cause still did. What if I actually had a lot to contribute to that group? What if leadership and action bias and a little flair with communication were just what that group needed to propel its initiatives to success?
The healthy aging community action is happening in May. After that, the Tikkun Olam Committee will move on to other issues. Rather than using my frustration as an excuse to opt out, I’m going to try to step up – and propose some changes that I hope will bring energy purpose to the group. If it doesn’t work, at least I won’t have walked away from the plate before I’ve even been struck out.
Maybe a few incendiary personalities, with our short fuses and passionate temperaments, aren’t such bad ingredients in a recipe for social justice.
Karen White, a member of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, CA, lives with her partner and her two children in the San Francisco Bay Area. She travels regularly to Israel for work and writes about parenting, and other things that make you go hmm, with a Jewish perspective.
Originally published at The Accidental Writer